Why GPL compliance work matters
by Donald Robertson III, Copyright and Licensing Associate
The Free Software Foundation expanded our licensing team this year, in large part to increase our compliance efforts. In addition to the educational materials we make available, active license enforcement is an important part of the service that we provide for the community.
At heart, compliance work matters for the same reasons that copyleft matters: we want to make sure that the software always remains free. Sometimes it makes sense to license a work under a permissive license. Under those circumstances, adding additional conditions won't really benefit the free software community, but would add some extra work. When those circumstances don't exist, and a copyleft license like the GPL is necessary to preserve user freedom, license enforcement should play an important role. A copyleft license that is not enforced, after all, offers no more protection than a simple permissive license. A lack of license enforcement has the perverse consequence of letting those who do not care about free software use a work without condition, while good community members will still go through the time and effort of making sure they fully comply.
That is why the FSF is dedicated to providing enforcement services for the community. Active enforcement is a difficult process. It involves investigating violations where information is purposefully hidden, understanding in minute detail the requirements of various free software licenses, and doggedly following up with potential violators in order to ensure their compliance. By handling these issues for the GNU Project, and offering assistance for all free software packages, the FSF hopes to free up developers so they can focus on their code.
The GPL is a promise that the software will always be free, and enforcing on its terms is one way that the Free Software Foundation helps to keep that promise. That is why the FSF has expanded our compliance efforts.